The Nonprofit Bubonic Plague Syndrome, Part II: The Stats

In the preceding post we wrote about the Nonprofit Bubonic Plague Syndrome–the propensity of today’s donors to bail on even a favored charity when they sense that it is in financial trouble.

Today we take a look at the stats that relate to that syndrome–updated numbers about the behavior of Christian donors in the midst of this current recession, as well as what said donors are indicating they’re likely to do for rest of the year. (Hint: It’s not “Write checks to nonprofits in financial distress”.)

The numbers come from the Barna Group in a three-part report called The Economy’s Impact. The fact that generally “mainstream” (i.e., secular) fundraising bloggers didn’t make note of this tremendous wealth of data on giving just underscores the degree to which this gargantuan segment of the nonprofit world (i.e., the Christian part) is at best underreported and at worst completely ignored.

Do make sure to read the whole Barna report, since it is flat out rife with relevant data. For our purposes, though, three statistics are key:

  • 48% of all adults said they had reduced their giving to non-profit organizations (excluding churches or other types of congregations) in the last three months.
  • 29% of adults said they had reduced their giving to churches and congregations in the same time frame.
  • 7% of adults surveyed reported that they donated at least 10% of their income. This percentage has stayed consistent throughout the recession.

The question, as related to the Nonprofit Bubonic Plague Syndrome, is this:

Why are donors more likely to reduce their giving to nonprofit organizations than to churches?

Frankly, I wish Barna would have asked that question explicitly as part of the survey. In the absence of hard data, however, let’s twist the numbers to make the point we want–er, I mean, let’s use our common sense.

  • Is it because nonprofits have not dropped as many A-bombs (Appeal bombs) and made as many urgent, emotional, desperate pleas for funds as churches have?
  • Is it because nonprofits do not ask as frequently for money as churches do?
  • Is it because nonprofits have not made as good a case for the funds as churches have?

I would confidently answer no to each of the above. The number of urgent, emotional, desperate pleas for money that I’ve received from nonprofits over the last few months outweighs by a factor of one hundred the number of times the subject has even come up at church, not to mention the tone or intensity. And with all due respect to churches, I can think of few times when pastors made more cogent cases for funding than nonprofit execs. No, there’s something more and different going on here.

And therein lies the point I want to make about why donors are cutting back on their nonprofit giving much moreso than their church giving:

It’s the Nonprofit Bubonic Plague Syndrome.

Let’s face it: The scent of funding desperation that hangs over the nonprofit sector at present is as thick and overpowering as Brut Aftershave. How many communications have you had with your donors in the past three months that haven’t involved the long face, the stiff upper lip, the “We’re doing the past we can” attitude that sounds more like a person struggling with a terminal disease than a nonprofit leader flat out hog wild to change the world?

At least at church more gets talked about than how behind we are on the bills.

And that’s just the point:

Where did we get the idea that the best way to deal with financial shortfalls was to talk more about money? Where did we get the idea that talking less about our mission and purpose and vision and more about our institution and its incessant bills and financial needs is what will draw greater numbers of people to give and dive in deeper than ever before?

Sum it up and say:

There’s something more here than guilt or frequency and desperation of ask that explains why people are cutting their donations to charities at a faster clip than they’re cutting their donations to the churches. There’s a basic principle at root here. Call it life or involvement or activity or participation or engagement or ownership or whatever you want. The bottom line is that when a donor’s basic relationship to you primarily involves them giving you money, you will always–always–get aced out by an organization whose basic relationship with the donor is more holistic.

And that’s the heart of Transformational Giving. The faster we as nonprofits can reshape our organizations accordingly, the more likely we’ll survive this recession, accomplish the purpose we set out to achieve, and be the donor magnets that we have the potential to be…as we shall see when we move on to the third and final part of our series on The Nonprofit Bubonic Plague Syndrome:

The Solution.

About Pastor Foley

The Reverend Dr. Eric Foley is CEO and Co-Founder, with his wife Dr. Hyun Sook Foley, of Voice of the Martyrs Korea, supporting the work of persecuted Christians in North Korea and around the world and spreading their discipleship practices worldwide. He is also the International Ambassador for the International Christian Association, the global fellowship of Voice of the Martyrs sister ministries. Pastor Foley is a much sought after speaker, analyst, and project consultant on the North Korean underground church, North Korean defectors, and underground church discipleship. He and Dr. Foley oversee a far-flung staff across Asia that is working to help North Koreans and Christians everywhere grow to fullness in Christ. He earned the Doctor of Management at Case Western Reserve University's Weatherhead School of Management in Cleveland, Ohio.
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3 Responses to The Nonprofit Bubonic Plague Syndrome, Part II: The Stats

  1. Matt Bates says:

    Churches, for the most part, have more flexible organizational structures than nonprofits, so they are more adaptable to change. It’s more a movement than an institution.

    If, for example, overnight, we took away every church building in America, every salaried position, every budget, every overhead projector, the church as a movement would still survive. Historically it’s always been able to go underground and off the grid when necessary. Some would argue it even thrives under such circumstances.

    But most nonprofits would be crippled if we took away their stuff, because most are institutions and not movements. AA would probably survive. I’m drawing a blank on any others.

    Vernard Eller’s metaphor of caravan versus commissary is useful here. Caravans move on despite the weather. They are flexible, mobile, but they demand that you keep walking.

    • EFoley says:

      Can nonprofits survive “off the grid”? Great question, Bates. More and more I’m recognizing that E–Engagement–is the stage where nonprofits help champions go “off the grid” by equipping them to live out the cause in their own life, informally but intentionally. The question is: Can nonprofits themselves live out the cause the same way?

  2. Pingback: The Nonprofit Bubonic Plague Syndrome, Part III: The Solution « Transformational Giving

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